The decline of local newspapers isn’t just a problem in the U.S.: A new report looks at how residents of communities in the U.K. get their local news and finds that social media — mainly Facebook groups and pages — is now the primary way they get information about the areas where they live.
The research was led by Stephen Barclay of City, University of London, and funded by the Charitable Journalism Project, an initiative to help U.K. newsrooms gain charitable status. The researchers interviewed and conducted focus groups with residents of seven communities around the U.K.
While the report is titled “Local news deserts in the U.K.,” the seven communities examined do, in fact, have some traditional local news sources, but these are seen as inadequate and in many cases have been hollowed out, or merged and centralized.
In Lewisham, London, for instance, “the only traditional newspaper dedicated exclusively to the borough is the Lewisham News Shopper, a free weekly”; another free weekly covers Lewisham as well as other South London boroughs. But “many respondents were unaware that newspapers still existed which covered the borough,” the report’s authors note.
Every community had “a range of applicable local Facebook pages and groups.”
“A lot of it’s trash to be honest, but a lot of it’s very useful,” said one member of a focus group in Lewisham. “A couple of weeks ago there was these fireworks going on for 30 or 40 minutes… I was just kind of wondering what was going on and everyone had the answers.”
One of the admins of Spotted in Trowbridge, a large local Facebook group, said:
“We are quick. We don’t wait for hours on end before checking in and publishing the information sent to us…The people want to be heard and, provided it is done with respect, we allow them to have their voice…Even if it’s not said with complete respect, we allow people to comment as they wish….we have no right to determine if they are right / wrong or otherwise.”
A worker for the National Health Service in Whitby said:
“In the past we have used the Whitby Gazette to publicize changes in our [NHS] services. Like flu vaccine campaigns. We don’t do that now because putting something on Facebook is more effective than putting it in the Gazette.”
Local Facebook groups were also a source of rumors and misinformation. A worker with Citizens Advice Bureau — a U.K. charity that provides free, confidential assistance on all kinds of topics — said:
“We spend a fair amount of time fighting off Facebook rumors. Housing allowance is a good example. We’ll have a client who comes in and says ‘I need to apply for social housing.’ We say ‘You need to go through this process, be on the waiting list, bid for a property’ and they say ‘But if I’d come from Syria and I was a refugee I’d get given a house automatically no questions asked’ and we ask ‘Where did you hear this?’ they say ‘I saw it on a Facebook site.'”
The Facebook groups do not offer investigative reporting. And “respondents were clear that a wide range of local issues and institutions were not getting sufficient coverage,” the report’s authors write. “Where there was coverage, respondents believed that much of it was driven by institutional public affairs teams and press releases, rather than independent reporting.”
They’re … not wrong! “We tend to write the story for them, supply the pictures and caption and suggested headline. That’s the way to get it in,” said one representative of a local charity about how they get coverage in the local paper. “I got to edit the article. I mean actually changing the words. I’ve never had that before.”
A bright spot, sometimes, is the Local Democracy Reporting Service, a BBC initiative that places journalists in regional news organizations:
[In] some cases the coverage of local government was singled out as relatively good compared to the coverage of other institutions and public services. Though respondents (except those who worked in journalism) were not aware of the scheme, the reporting referred to could be traced to the Local Democracy Reporter (LDR) in the area.
“The journalists covering local government have been brilliant in terms of going to council meetings and tweeting stuff.” [Interview, Trowbridge]
LDRs were able to maintain coverage of council meetings in some areas, to varying extents, where this had been cut down due to staff shortages. However, the LDR scheme does not work uniformly well. Northamptonshire has struggled to recruit due to low pay and the rarity of the skillset required, leaving a position vacant for over a year at the time of writing [interview, Corby]. In one community the LDR left to join the local authority as a communications officer.
“You can keep up to date with local politics if you look for it but what’s the point if you can’t do anything?” one interviewee said.
You can read the full report here.